Monday, 18 November 2019 16:07

Governor signs into law bills helping storm victims, hospitals, DOT

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RALEIGH — Hurricane victims, struggling rural hospitals, and the state Department of Transportation will get an infusion of cash. 

Gov. Roy Cooper on Monday, Nov. 18, signed two bills into law that aim to stabilize the DOT and rural hospitals, as well as provide disaster relief for victims of Hurricane Dorian and other major storms.

Senate Bill 356 gives the NCDOT $200 million to help the department recover from $2 billion in overspending. The department had to pause some 900 projects in August, blaming unexpected costs from storm damage and litigation over the Map Act, a repealed law that allowed the DOT to take private land without immediately compensating landowners.

The bill tries to prevent future overspending by deflating the cost of the Map Act. The law puts a $150 million cap on annual spending on Map Act settlements, exempting turnpike projects. It also limits the value of reimbursements to homeowners by dictating simple, rather than compound interest.

Legislators worried these measures would leave the law “wide open” to constitutional challenges, but the bill still passed with overwhelming support and little debate.

S.B. 356 also requires the department to create a transportation emergency reserve for major disasters. The bill starts the fund with $64 million from the General Assembly’s unreserved balance in the general fund. The DOT will then maintain the fund by transferring money each year from the Highway Fund if the fund dips below $125 million.

In return, the department must strengthen its accountability systems, increase transparency, and undergo a performance audit.

The other bill Cooper signed was more contentious.

House Bill 200 provides about $121 million in matching state funds for disaster relief, and it funded the state’s individual assistance program for victims of Hurricane Dorian. It also sets aside $59 million for storm-resiliency efforts.

The same bill funds the rural hospital loan program by funneling about $13 million this fiscal year and $6.6 million next fiscal year from the general fund into the loan program.

Though the bill overwhelmingly passed the legislature, Cooper later attacked the measure because it would put money received by the state under lawmakers’ control. The bill requires any donation or gift accepted by the state to be deposited into the state treasury.

The provision was originally included in the state budget, and Cooper lashed out against the language Thursday, saying it would put educational and environmental programs at risk.

Cooper accused Republicans of using storm victims as “political pawns.”

“This legislation helps families recovering from Dorian and previous storms, especially those left behind by the federal government,” Cooper said in a news release. “The governor pushed for this funding, and the Republican leadership was willing to risk losing it by attaching unrelated political power grabs, but the governor believes helping these survivors must prevail.”

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, argued Cooper misrepresented the legislation by failing to acknowledge that it wouldn’t affect programs provided for by state law.

“The provision arose from concerns about the governor’s own actions,” said Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. “There are allegations he altered what was supposed to be an environmental mitigation fund for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline under the control of environmental bureaucrats into a slush fund under his own personal control.”